You may be surprised to learn that of the trio of long-awaited coronavirus vaccines, the most promising, Moderna’s mRNA-1273, which reported a 94.5 percent efficacy rate on November 16, had been designed by January 13. This was just two days after the genetic sequence had been made public in an act of scientific and humanitarian generosity that resulted in China’s Yong-Zhen Zhang’s being temporarily forced out of his lab. In Massachusetts, the Moderna vaccine design took all of one weekend. It was completed before China had even acknowledged that the disease could be transmitted from human to human, more than a week before the first confirmed coronavirus case in the United States. By the time the first American death was announced a month later, the vaccine had already been manufactured and shipped to the National Institutes of Health for the beginning of its Phase I clinical trial. This is — as the country and the world are rightly celebrating — the fastest timeline of development in the history of vaccines. It also means that for the entire span of the pandemic in this country, which has already killed more than 250,000 Americans, we had the tools we needed to prevent it.
This is from David Wallace-Wells, “We Had the Vaccine the Whole Time,” New York, December 7, 2020.
HT to my Hoover colleague John Cochrane, who hits home run after home run, but this is one went out of the park.
If you do nothing else today, read his post.
To be clear, I don’t want to suggest that Moderna should have been allowed to roll out its vaccine in February or even in May.
To be clear, I want not only to suggest that but to advocate that.
John Cochrane explains why:
Even under operation Warp Speed — a truly commendable accomplishment of the Trump Administration that, maybe a year or so from now the TDS crowd might acknowledge — the only thing we have been waiting for is FDA certification: Randomized clinical trials to prove safety and efficacy, before anyone is allowed to take the vaccine.
What’s the free-market way? A drug company can sell a vaccine on January 14, and you can buy it, without fear of going to jail.
Sure, there is an FDA, and a Federal Trade Commission which monitors drug labeling. The vaccine has to say “this is totally untested, and has not been proven safe or effective in clinical trials” and offer a stack of paper about known risks. You sign a stack of consent forms. If you take it, you’re enrolled in our big national database — you just volunteered for the national non-random clinical trial. (We don’t collect much data on drugs that are out there). The FDA rapidly collects information. At the same time, randomized clinical trials are going on. Drugs can give more and more hopeful labels as the results roll in. At some point after Phase III and FDA review, a drug can get the official FDA seal of approval. No, insurance and medicare don’t pay for non-approved stuff. This is free-market nirvana, you pay for unapproved medicines if you want them (see part 1). There is an FTC and a tort system. Drug companies that sell things they know are unsafe or ineffective pay billions.
Sunk costs are sunk, of course. But wouldn’t it be great if we took some learning from this so that we could be more prepared for the next pandemic and not shut down the economy and lose lives both from the pandemic and from the shutdown?